Ever since I started playing guitar, I was always drawn towards the Les Paul – the three-pickup version in particular. The two-pickup guitar always lacked something in the looks department. I still can’t figure out what, but it feels a bit unnatural to me. When I finally got a three-pickup Les Paul Custom in black, I was totally taken by the looks. It was to define all other guitars I would buy (or sell) from that moment on! The only thing that absolutely didn’t work for me was the wiring. I adjusted my technique quite rapidly to accommodate the middle humbucker, and nowadays my picking hand can’t go without it very easily, all due to muscle memory. The wiring was a major problem, though.
The Les Paul was conceived as a two-pickup guitar with individual tone and volume controls and a three-way toggle on the upper bout to switch between pickups. The three-pickup version just adds the middle pickup to almost all combinations without a dedicated switch or pot to blend the middle pickup in or out! In other words, it’s always there. I modified my Les Paul directly to the regular two-pickup wiring, with the third pickup only there for the looks. Over time though, I got annoyed by the stock setup and by not having the ability to use that middle pickup. I conjured some wirings to get that third pickup working without losing the two-pickup wiring or having to drill many holes. It took a lot of effort to find the most useful wiring and pickup selections, but in the meantime I also found the most useless wiring and pickup choices!
First, let’s take a look at the good pickup choices. As I said in the triple single coil article, the middle pickup is mostly there to blend in, to give it a voicing. On a Les Paul that idea still holds. On a Strat you want a very low output middle pickup to quack, and on a Les Paul that’s no different. You can get a Les Paul to quack, that’s for sure, but not as ‘ducky’ as a Strat. Still, you can get a long way. A low output pickup like the Seth Lover neck or Jazz neck model in the middle will work great, in my experience. It can blend with hotter pickup to lower the output and give you that quacky tone and blend in with softer pickups to sweeten up the sound, and give you that quack too. The Seth might be the more ‘historically correct’ choice, and the Jazz gives you a nice amount of clarity. You can’t go wrong with either. I do find personally that the Phat Cat doesn’t really work for the middle position because it’s too hot for most combinations and most definitely too hot to quack.
The bridge pickup can be many things, of course. I’m very fond of the Jazz, the Pearly Gates, ’59 and 59/Custom Hybrid, but the JB, Alternative 8 and PATB2 also work extremely well in a Les Paul (the JB is a hit and miss, though, since I find it to be very picky in what woods it goes with: sometimes it works with mahogany, sometimes it doesn’t). The 59/Custom Hybrid treads the path between high output and vintage output with the best of both worlds but without the drawbacks of either; it’s becoming my ‘to go’ pickup.
The neck position is always a lot more trouble to me. I want clarity and warmth, fatness and articulation, which are seemingly impossible combinations. Nevertheless there are some pickups that work very well for me. The ’59 bridge goes very well in the neck if paired with a pickup that’s as hot or hotter, like the JB, Alternative 8 or even the Pearly Gates. The singing quality, almost like a voice, is immense in that pickup. It’s clear and sweet yet it has a nice amount of dirt to it too. If paired with the Pearly you can lower the pickup to the edge of the pickup ring to balance the output of both pickups, and that makes the ’59 bridge very open. It’s like you can almost ‘hear’ the wood of the guitar much better in that combination.
The choices I make for a three-pickup guitar are different than for a two pickup guitar. I have to keep in mind how all three pickups work together. That might seem logical, but I see many players taking their favorite set, wacking a middle pickup there and getting aggrivated that the old pickups don’t work as they used to and the middle pickup doesn’t do for them what they had in mind! That’s logical, of course. You’re adding another magnet in the mix, and the other two pickups react to that. The dynamics between the pickups seem to change. Some players call that string pull, but that term implies that the strings are getting more ‘pulled’ than before, thereby affecting sustain or something. I don’t think that is the case. I think that the extra magnets added under the strings will deaden out the upper harmonics that make a guitar definable. Sometimes having multiple magnets isn’t really a bad thing because the pickup is designed to compensate that, like the Invader (that pickup has three massive ceramic magnets!).
The wiring that will work for you might be something completely different than what I use, but this is what I found to be the most useful. I wire the guitar up just like an ordinary two-pickup Les Paul, but with two push-pull pots. One is to engage the middle pickup and the other is there to coil-split the bridge and neck pickups. Since the middle pickup is just there to blend, why would I need a volume or tone pot to voice that pickup? Now I have a Les Paul that’s virtually stock, but with the added benefit of the middle pickup.
Some guitars though, have such a great tone with the middle pickup all alone (which I discovered via a fault in the wiring, purely by chance) that I want the middle pickup all by itself. Depending on the guitar there are two ways to go about this. If it’s a custom-build guitar I omit the three-way toggle and have a five-way blade installed on the upper bout, just like you have on a Strat. The middle position will be the neck and bridge pickup, and under a push pull pot I have a way to cut out everything except the middle pickup. In terms of pots, I haven’t changed a bit.
The most extravagant in terms of wiring is the following: a six or seven way rotary (if you can find it!), a concentric pot for volume and tone for each pickup, and a four-pole four-way rotary to switch the bridge and neck pickup simultaneously from series to parallel or just engage the left or right coil. This can also be achieved by the Seymour Duncan Triple Shot rings but I find having a four-way rotary easier because I can get all pickups to sound the same just in one hand movement. This is the most extreme wiring I can think of whilst keeping the stock looks. Using Triple Shots may give you the option of having a two position rotary as a phase switch but I find the out of phase sound absolutely useless, so I don’t have it. To make the picture complete, though, I made a diagram for that option. The four-way rotaries can be omitted and replaced by the Triple Shots; just follow the wiring instructions on the Triple Shots to find out how to do it properly. It’s incredibly easy.
Taking the most extreme of the ‘stock-looking wiring schematics’ as a starting point and working your way down towards the easier ones you will most likely find a wiring that will work for you. For the six (or seven) way rotary I use a chickenhead knob instead of a round, knurled knob because the point of the chickenhead doesn’t just facilitate an easy read-out of the position but it’s also easier to grab when switching between pickups.
When you shop for a six (or seven) way rotary make sure it has at least three poles. You have three pickups, and one pole for each (and an individual lug for each position!) will give you the freedom of chosing the pickup per position. Maybe you want a more elaborate Strat-style switching, like having in sequence the bridge, bridge and middle (middle) bridge and middle and neck, neck and bridge, neck and middle and neck pickup. Perhaps you want something more to your needs. I prefer to have it wired in a more split fashion; the lower positions are the regular Les Paul positions (bridge, bridge and neck, neck) and the rest is having all options with the middle pickup engaged. I chose that option because I use the full humbuckers most and this way I don’t have to go through five or six other positions to go from neck to bridge or vice versa. Also, when I use the middle pickup together with bridge or neck I want to go from bridge+middle to neck+middle, because that works best the music I play, the way I play it.
Take your time to figure out what works best for you, and don’t hesitate to grab the soldering iron and move the wire that carries the signal of the pickup to a position that works best for you. Just don’t forget to move the wire carrying the signal of the old pickup to it’s new position, too!